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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Art and the 21st Century

[ L.A. artist Joel Pelletier wrote the following essay in 2004, and we reprint it here with his kind permission. ]

What is Art (with a capitol "A") and the Artist in this 21st Century? Jacques Barzun (in "From Dawn to Decadence") suggests that the Western culture has run its course. There's nothing left, and the proof is that Art today is all recycle and homage. No new ideas anymore.

I fear he may be right. 500 years was a pretty good run...

But is an artist only someone who thinks up something new? Is "new," unique," "different" or "cutting edge" all that matters? Maybe that's the trap Art fell into in the 20th Century; faster and faster rule breaking, burning through genres, techniques and scandals in a desperate Blitzkrieg of "newness" until there was nothing new left. J.S. Bach was dogged by this most of his life, and was only resurrected as a master decades after his death (during his lifetime his sons were considered the great ones, and he an old fashioned stick-in-the-mud).

Then there's the whole career/success/money thing. Can I call myself an artist if I don't pay the bills with my art? Amateur artists used to be thought of in high regard, but we're in America, and successful people are rich people (even if they don't admit to being rich - ever tried to raise a family on $500k/yr?). At the risk of admitting I've seen Howard Stern on cable a few times, I once heard him remark to a woman that her 40-something boyfriend must be a loser because he has not made a name for himself in his field. Rely on Howard to express the consensus of today's society.

I'm inclined to think that Art is a verb, not a noun. The act of creating is just that. The first spark of an idea, the working out of the structure and tone, strategizing the executing of the piece, to the actual creation and culmination - all of this is ACTION (so much so that, for me, the final creation of the piece is the most laborious and least interesting). The final physical work is simply the byproduct of the Artist's efforts. The design folks on HGTV who regularly create "art" for peoples walls' (other than their own, mind you) do as much to debase the term as any of the avant-guard deconstructionists of the latter 20th Century. Like the word "genius," which really should be reserved for a handful per century (like Einstein or Stravinsky). Art is something that comes from obsession, individuality and necessity. It's not about making something new, but about seeing something old in a new way, and working out the best way to communicate this in the way that is most truthful to the Artist.

And if everyone is a unique combination of experiences, then real truth guarantees uniqueness. The completed work is just "product" to the Art world, something to buy and sell. Maybe this is what keeps me from churning out "stuff." I really don't want any part of that. I just want to keep making things, which continue to help me understand a bit more about who I really am.

Or, I want to understand just exactly who (or what) I am, so I continue to make "stuff." It's just that, for me, stuff can be anything - a song, a painting, a house, a car. That's my "Art." The act of planning and creating a carport, or overcoming the technical and aesthetic challenges of a Hindemith sonata, force me to make choices and overcome challenges. In doing so I find out a bit more about myself. Put any term or title on me you want. What I am is what I do. I make things.